Italy – Everything should be coming up roses for Soave. The wines, historically among Italy’s best whites, have never been better.
Yet a debate over whether to use a new designation, Superiore DOCG, threatens to spoil the renaissance of a region that has finally recovered from a long spell as a source of underwhelming wine.
Ironically, DOCG status – Italy’s top wine category – is set aside for the country’s best wines. But a fight over geography has left some of Soave’s best winemakers boycotting the Superiore mark.
Historically, Soave’s central Classico zone produced the best wines, but “very few Classico producers are using the DOCG,” says Stefano Inama, a prominent small grower.
Only about 1 percent of wines in the Classico zone – 150,000 bottles out of an annual production of about 15 million – are labeled Superiore. Most are produced by large cooperatives, which account for 80 percent of the region’s production. The region’s best wines are frequently designated as Soave Classico, a less prestigious category.
Soave, a picturesque village complete with storybook castle and crenellated walls, lies just north of Verona in Italy’s Veneto region. Its Classico zone encompasses about 4,200 acres over a series of volcanic hills, about 25 percent of the total area. The indigenous Garganega grape forms Soave’s core. Sometimes it’s blended with Trebbiano di Soave; locals are quick to point out that grape is different from popular Trebbiano Toscano, which they believe makes vapid wine, and which has been banned from the Soave region.
Certainly this isn’t the first time wine designations have become a sore point in Italy. In the 1970s, the best wines from Chianti shunned that famous name and were sold as vino de tavola, the country’s lowliest wine category. Even today, Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most famous producers, sometimes uses the less-exalted Langhe designation for his best wines instead of the prestigious Barbaresco.
But Soave’s regulations are confusing even to experts. The wines are stratified into three broad categories. Soave, which applies to lesser wines from the region’s plains, remains at the base. In the middle is Soave Classico, which applies to wines from its hilly central area, plus a new DOC, Soave Colli Scaligeri, for wines from hillsides outside the Classico zone. The newly minted Superiore mark, established for the 2002 vintage, sits at the top.
Here’s the rub: Regulations allow any wine from hillsides – not just those in the Classico zone – to become Superiore if it meets tougher analytical standards: higher minimum alcohol, lower yields and so on. Classico wines meeting the standards can say both Classico and Superiore. That has incensed traditional Classico producers, who are unhappy to be sharing the perch with others, especially cooperatives. Inama calls Superiore “a marketing tool,” not a quality measure.
“If it applied only to wines from the Classico zone, I would join,” he says.
Wine drinkers are faced with this paradox: Many of the best Soaves aren’t labeled as the best. It seems to defeat Superiore’s very purpose.
This glitch comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Soave. Historically known for growing Italy’s most famous white wine, the region became the victim of its own success in the 1970s as industrial producers shipped tanker trucks of insipid wine made from flatland vineyards, literally diluting the wines from the prized Classico hillsides.
But the past decade has witnessed a return to glory in Soave, as small quality-minded producers embraced modern high-end winemaking.
“Ten years ago, you could count the number of top-notch producers on the fingers of one hand,” says Patricia Guy, an American living in Verona and an expert on Italian wine. “Now, there are scores of small growers making distinctive wines.”
Even so, enthusiasm for Soave remains spotty. Mark Middlebrook, Italian buyer at Paul Marcus Wine in Oakland, says the store usually stocks only one or two out of about 30 Italian whites. “Soave is just not that popular,” he says. “Other Italian whites are more exciting.”
But Soave moves well at Prima Vini Restaurant in Walnut Creek, according to wine director John Rittmaster. “All Italian whites are recovering from a poor image problem,” he adds. “Soave is selling as well as any of them, except, of course, for Pinot Grigio.”
Good Soave has a unique flavor that, according to Giovanni Ponchia, enologist for the Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave, the region’s wine trade organization, comes from the area’s volcanic soils. The hillside areas are composed of lava, like the area around Vesuvius in Campania, which may explain a similarity to some Campanian whites.
As part of Soave’s resurrection, the trade group undertook a Linnaean effort to categorize vineyards, identifying the best 51 sites to use on labels. That only complicated the problem. Made-up names also abound, and almost no one outside the region can discern a prized vineyard site, such as FroscÀ, from a brand name. Aldo Lorenzoni, the consorzio president, has vowed to clarify things.
But that’s not where the confusion ends. While Soave’s most popular style is fresh and vibrant, some producers now favor fermenting and aging wine in barrels, or even using the appassimento method that harnesses partially dried grapes, which is used for the region’s other DOCG, the sweet wine Recioto di Soave. Sometimes the differences are mentioned on the back label, sometimes not.
So while most Soave should be consumed within a year or two, some examples from top producers and sites, such as Gini’s from the FroscÀ vineyard or Coffele’s from Ca’ Visco, evolve beautifully for up to a decade.
How to sort this out? Consider the explanation from Classico producer Graziano PrÀ about why he spurned a Superiore classification.
“Mi chiamo PrÀ” – my name is PrÀ – he says. “That’s the only guarantee a customer needs.”
The take-home message is no different than buying Burgundy. Learn your favorite producer’s name and leave the exalted Superiore neckband to the bureaucrats.
Soave worth seeking
2008 Gini Soave Classico ($20) You can’t go wrong with this wine from Gini, one of Soave’s best producers. Slightly floral and nutty, it’s more minerally than fruity, with uplifting acidity. And keep an eye out for the single-vineyard 2008 La Frosca when it arrives. (Importer: Marc de Grazia/Estate Wines)
2008 Pieropan Soave Classico ($17) Pieropan is another of Soave’s excellent producers. They blend a small amount of Trebbiano di Soave with Garganega to achieve this angular mineral-infused wine. Its laser-like finish amplifies its flavors and charm. (Importer: Empson USA)
2007 PrÀ Soave Classico Staforte ($22) Not a single vineyard wine, Staforte is a selection that undergoes extended lees aging and stirring. An unusual richness and creaminess – an almost brioche-like yeastiness – complements its underlying minerality. (Importer: Vinifera Imports)
This article appeared on page K – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, October 25, 2009